Arts

The wife of Jesus: the North Carolina connection

09 bookoflongingsDid Jesus find a wife in North Carolina?

The answer is yes.

But the story is fictional, and the North Carolina connection is complicated.

Sue Monk Kidd is the best-selling author of “The Secret Life of Bees” and other popular books. Her latest, “The Book of Longings,” came out on
April 21. It tells the story of Ana and her marriage to a young carpenter and stonemason from Nazareth.

The North Carolina connection?

A short article in the May 17 issue of The New York Times headlined “Did Jesus Ever Tie the Knot? A New Novel Considers the Question” reported that Kidd, despite her deep connections to Georgia, wrote the new book in Chapel Hill, where she now lives.

Although the book is set in the Middle East of 2,000 years ago, the coming together of Jesus and Ana was framed in North Carolina.

The story begins in the year 16 A.D. Ana is the teen-aged daughter of the head scribe of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and, subject to the Roman overlords, the ruler of Galilee. Ana and her mother, father, aunt and servants live near Antipas’s palace in Sepphoris, a thriving town. Ana’s cousin and adopted brother, Judas, has left home to join with zealots fighting against the Roman occupation. Nearby Sepphoris is the poor village of Nazareth, where Jesus lives in a less-than-modest hovel with his widowed mother, Mary, and his siblings.

Unlike most other women of the times, Ana is well educated and writes stories of women heroes of the Bible. Although she cherishes her unmarried status, her parents arrange for her betrothal to an elderly wealthy man. When he dies before the wedding, they push her to become Antipas’s concubine.

Meanwhile, she has encountered Jesus, who walks each day from Nazareth to Sepphoris to work on a massive construction project for Antipas. The spark is immediate. She appreciates his deep connection to God, or as Jesus calls him when he prays, Abba or father. He appreciates her education and aspirations to write and promote the place of women.

  Their marriage transforms her privileged life into hand-to-mouth poverty in the crowded house in Nazareth, where Ana does not get the warmest of
welcomes.

Kidd describes the smells and the constant chores of cooking, milking, feeding, sewing, petty jealousies and resentments that fill the lives of the struggling poor. Jesus is often gone for long periods to work on projects in other parts of Galilee, sometimes even going as far as the Sea of Galilee to work with fishermen.

Jesus’s search for God leads him to the preaching of John the Baptist. He becomes a follower, and then when John is arrested by Antipas, Jesus becomes a leader, leaving Ana alone with his family in Nazareth.

Ana herself offends Antipas and becomes another of his targets. For safety, Ana’s aunt takes her to Egypt, where she encounters another set of conflicts and challenges in a totally different environment in the great library city of Alexandria.

Ana is finally called to return from Egypt. She arrives in Bethany near Jerusalem just in time for a Passover dinner with Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus, but Jesus is not there. The next day in Jerusalem, Ana watches as Jesus is carrying the cross towards the execution site. He collapses. Ana rushes to comfort him and say goodbye.

Then Kidd reconstructs the crucifixion experience in a way more horrible and poignant than any of the four gospels. She also offers a surprising explanation of why Judas betrayed Jesus.

That Ana’s story continues after Jesus’s death emphasizes Kidd’s and Ana’s belief that the exclusion and minimization of the role of women in the days of Jesus and today has been a tragic mistake.

Whether Kidd’s readers are true believers or skeptical inquirers, “The Book of Longings” will be an enriching and challenging read.

Cape Fear Regional Theatre offers virtual community outreach

08 cfrtlogoThe 2019-2020 play season at Cape Fear Regional Theatre experienced an unplanned intermission due to the coronavirus. When the governor presented social distancing guidelines in midMarch, CFRT cancelled the rest of its 2019-2020 season, which opened with a bang with “Mamma Mia!” and closed prematurely with “Murder for Two.”  Nevertheless, the staff of the theater has worked tirelessly to provide the arts to locals in a social-distancing-friendly way.

The journey started with the theater hosting a free offering for a couple months that was open to the public. Staff at the theater and artists who worked with the theater in the past would emphasize something different every day, from song-writing to dance to writing monologues. On average there were 10-20 attendees per class. That’s when the staff at the theater saw how virtual meetings were taking off.

When schools closed, the staff launched Virtual Edutainment. “We thought, What can we do to keep the theater going and (to keep) the kids engaged who we would normally have doing studio classes or coming to the theater?” said Marc de la Concha, the director of education at the CFRT.

The staff had all hands on deck to brainstorm, and landed on offering online, week-long classes that had a different focus each day. 

“It would kind of take care of what students were doing in school in terms of art and music and physical education,” said de la Concha. Some weeks were generic and some weeks had themes like Harry Potter, Lego and Dr. Seuss, to name a few. The program ran for nine weeks.

People outside Cumberland County and even outside of the state tuned into the lessons.

The launch was a success. Offering classes for two K-2nd grade sessions a day and two 3rd-5th grade sessions per day, the teachers had about 15 kids in each class on average, and they were able to give individual attention to the children.

Around the same time as the Virtual Edutainment launch, the Spring Break Bootcamp was supposed to take place. To help all the students who signed up for it to reap its benefits, they moved the boot camp online, where it had 50-60 participants.

CFRT is no novice when it comes to community outreach. Over the past few years, the theater has also reached out to the military community through its Passport series.
“(The series) is basically a playwriting workshop that takes place over eight weeks, and it’s for military children. They were offering it on post at the Throckmorton Library for two years, and it’s grown so much that this past year we worked with the library in Hope Mills and Rick’s Place and had our program out at those locations as well,” de la Concha explained.

The program is free, and as time has gone on, it has gained momentum. In the first year, the program filled up in a day. In the second year, the program sold out in a couple hours. “This past year, it’s been minutes,” said de la Concha. “We’ll tell the parents, ‘It’ll open up on this day at this time,’ and within minutes, it’s full.”

For the first time this year, CFRT attempted to offer a program called Act Fast for the military and military-adjacent adults with funding provided by The Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County. The production was going to be called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind,” a collection of 30 short plays, all performed in 60 minutes. With performance dates initially scheduled for mid-July, the performances had to be canceled due to the extension of Phase 2 social distancing, as well as the amount of participants who were PCSing.

Even so, Mary Kate Burke, artistic director at the theater, sees the attempt as a success because it brought part of the military community together. Because of the newfound friendships that were built during rehearsals, the participants were grateful for the experience, and many of them had a virtual Easter dinner together. The theater hopes to have Act Fast again next year.

“(The military) is always on the move, and it’s important for them to feel like there’s a place where they can gather together with people who are going through the same things that they are … The plays they write are really extraordinary, and it comes from a different place,” said de la Concha.

“It’s been an opportunity for them to get involved, whether they’re new to the area, they’ve been here a while, or they’re homeschooled or they go to one of the Cumberland County schools, it’s a great opportunity to get together with peers that are like them.”

Summer camps have always been popular at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre, and this year is no different. As summer goes on, the theater will host programs for several ages. So far, CFRT has hosted one of its camps for the production “Kids Rock The World” for ages 6-9. There are two more camps for the production coming up in July and August that are almost completely sold out. For ages 10-14, a camp with a production of “Frozen” is being offered. One of them has already happened. A sold out camp is happening in July, and an  in-person camp  is being offered from July 27-Aug. 8 with some availability. From July 27-Aug. 15, CFRT is offering a camp with a production of “Puffs” for ages 15-19.

Kids do wear masks in the productions while the theater also emphasizes sanitization to ensure the safety of the children. The theater also has been careful to follow the CDC’s social distancing guidelines.

One of the benefits of the CDC’s guidelines is that the children who participate in the camps are separated into three different groups. For example, one of the “Frozen” camps was split into three different groups, each of which did their own production. “We’ll have three Elsas, three Annas, three Olafs in each company. That’s great because … we’ve seen kids that have come here for years who feel like, ‘Yes, this is my summer,’” said de la Concha.

In a tumultuous time, the arts’ provision of creativity and joy is a much-needed constant. “I think everybody needs the arts, especially at a time like now,” said de la Concha. “We’re working very hard to make sure we can continue to make that happen.

Visit www.cfrt.org to find out more about what Cape Fear Regional Theatre.

A cure for the isolation and a troubled marriage

12 blue marlinWhat is the big news in North Carolina?

For some, it is not the bad news that the coronavirus has shut us up in our homes for weeks and weeks and undercut the economic lives of so many.

It is, instead, the good news that, starting April 21 with the release of Lee Smith’s latest book, “Blue Marlin,” there will be something to ease the discomfort of our confinement.

“Blue Marlin” is short, about 120 pages, each filled with Smith’s warm and sympathetic storytelling gifts and characters who reach out and remind us of people we knew growing up.

Smith confesses in an afterword that for all the stories she has ever written, “this one is dearest to me, capturing the essence of my own childhood — the kind of unruly, spoiled only child I was; the sweetness of my troubled parents, and the magic essence of Key West, ever since January 1959, when these events actually occurred.”

Smith then explains that not all the events in her book happened. The book, she says, is “autobiographical fiction, with the emphasis on fiction.” She explains, “I can tell the truth better in fiction than nonfiction.”

In the book, the “Lee Smith-like” character, Jenny, age 13, discovers her small-town lawyer dad — think Atticus Finch — is having an affair. Soon everybody in town knows. Her dad moves out of their home. Her depressed mom seeks treatment at a hospital in Asheville. Jenny is sent to stay with her mom’s cousin Glenda in South Carolina. Jenny fights this placement. Glenda is tough and deeply and out-front religious. Soon Jenny feels at home, adjusting and then thriving under Glenda’s no-nonsense orderliness.

Meanwhile, her parents decide to try to put their marriage back together on a trip to Key West. When they pick up Jenny at Glenda’s, Jenny brings a white New Testament that Glenda gave her, a necklace with a cross that Jenny stole from Glenda’s daughter and a growing interest in Jesus and boys.

Riding to Key West in the back seat of her dad’s new Cadillac, Jenny begins a list of good deeds she will do on each day of their monthly trip “which ought to be enough,” she thought, “to bring even Mama and Daddy back together.”

But the question is, will the time in Key West do the job?

Things get off to a good start. Their hotel, the Blue Marlin, is a positive, not just because of its swimming pool and water slide. The motel is full of a movie crew, including actor Tony Curtis. 

“Mama and I were crazy about Tony Curtis,” says Jenny. Both were big movie fans and read the fan magazines together. About Curtis, they “squealed together.” Then they learn Cary Grant is part of the movie’s cast, and things are off to a good start.

Jenny settles into Key West. She walks the streets, visits the old Catholic church, reads the texts in the graveyard, gets to know a group of strippers, and does her good deeds every day. Still she asks whether they were working. “My parents were endlessly cordial to each other now, but so far they had never slept in the same bed. I knew this for a fact. I checked their room every morning.”

To find out whether Tony Curtis’s help and Jenny’s good deeds can bring about real marital reconciliation, you will have to read the book.

But, here is a clue from Smith’s afterword. After the real trip to Key West to help her real parents’ troubled marriage, Smith writes that the Key West cure worked. “Mama and Daddy would go home refreshed, and stay married for the rest oftheir lives.”

‘Where the Winds Never Stop: The Hildreth Project’

09 terryhinrechsYou will know someone or will have seen someone that is being exhibited at Gallery 208 in the new exhibit titled “Where the Winds Never Stops: The Hildreth Project.” How is that possible when you have probably never been to Hildreth, Nebraska? The photographer, Shane Booth, in a series of photographs, has captured the essence of part of an iconic Americana. I could go on and on about his extensive professional resume. Still, to understand how a photograph moves from a good photograph to a great photograph, I would like to share insight into his 16-year personal back story.

The portrait photographs in “Where the Winds Never Stops: The Hildreth Project” are of rural white America (it’s Nebraska!), but you can be of any ethnicity and see someone you think you may have met or have seen before … that is the genius of this body of work and has been the artist’s oeuvre for the past 20 years – to capture the essence of something beyond an individual’s identity, instead, the spirit of the many in a single portrait.
In comparison, Cindy Sherman, a historically significant contemporary photographer, has created thousands of photographs of herself, dressed in disguise, to portray an iconic American female “type” that most people, in America, would recognize — a movie star, a homemaker, a sun-burned beachgoer. Booth has done the opposite of Sherman. He has photographed a real individual who evokes the essence of a familiar type.
A powerful incentive to see the exhibit, visitors to Gallery 208 will immediately experience a sense of peacefulness and quietude as you scan the exhibit. Yet, upon closer inspection, some of the out-of-focus elements in the photograph are eerily disconcerting. The experience of calm is not by accident. It is the result of his professional history but also little-known facts about his past.

In 2002, while a graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Booth found the 1867 camera at an antique store during a visit home to Nebraska. In 2004, he graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with an MFA in photography. He began commuting, for a short time, from Savannah, Georgia, to teach “one” art survey class at Fayetteville Community College. Booth eventually moved to Fayetteville, worked several jobs in restaurants and a frame shop to survive. In 2005, he was hired to teach as an adjunct art instructor at Fayetteville State University. He became a full-time art faculty at FSU in 2007.

In 2013, Booth received a North Carolina Arts Council grant to have the 1867 large format camera restored. He has been using it ever since to create bodies of work. Although the camera equipment Booth uses changed, the idea of portraiture and the essence of what it means to portray an individual is not new.

The photographs in “Where the Winds Never Stops: The Hildreth Project” are the direct result of Booth’s knowledge of the art and craft of photography, his experience as an artist and an 1867-barrel lens camera he has restored. But the heart of Booth’s work as a mature artist lingers as a result of his 2004 MFA thesis exhibit. That year, Booth’s MFA thesis dissertation and exhibit focused on social photography; the title of his exhibition was “Pigeonhole.”

For Booth, coming from Nebraska to Savannah, Georgia, he is the first to admit he was a very naïve young man. “Savannah was not like Nebraska. I always felt oddly different. I was naïve about the racism I experienced for the first time, the stereotyping of people — even crime. For the thesis exhibit “Pigeonhole,” I did a series for portraits — combining my love of vintage things with the idea of how people are stereotyped.”

Unknowingly and indirectly, the heart of Booth’s work in this exhibition, and for most of his work since the 2004 MFA thesis, has always been about the essence of what it means to portray an individual. Even when Booth returns home each summer to photograph the Nebraska landscape, his landscapes are about the idea of portraiture and identity — what it means to grow up in rural Nebraska.
When you visit “Where the Winds Never Stops: The Hildreth Project,” you are seeing the work of an artist whose goal is to photograph every person living in Hildreth. When asked why, Booth said, “For five generations my family has called Hildreth, Nebraska, home. I return to the town every summer looking for familiar faces that make up my memories and the heart of this small farming community. As memories fade, people pass on, and younger generations want to live a more updated life, I feel it is important to document the members who remain in this small village. For me, they represent the identity of a group of people that are slowly being lost, a group that is defined by their strong generational connection to (their) environment.”

The exhibit will be up for three months, and the opening reception, to meet the artist and hear the artist talk about his work, was moved until August. Before August, when you visit Gallery 208, here is insight into how Booth can create the essence of the exhibition you will experience and how he interfaces with the subjects to take their portraits. “I wanted to document the spirit of Hildreth through portraiture,” said Booth. “I place the subject in their environment, which usually consists of their barn or home. … I do not direct the subject or pose them in a particular way. I simply allow them to sit in front of the camera and form a relationship with the lens. Sometimes that relationship is an easy one, and at other times it can be a bit anxious looking. Each image has a 10-second development time due to the 1867-barrel lens I use on my 8x10 studio camera. Because of this long exposure, movement and blurring of the subject or background become part of the photograph. In a land where the wind never stops blowing, it is part of their story.”

Booth’s backstory has been shared, but it’s also important to highlight a few of his many achievements. Some of his most recent exhibitions include: “Open Call,” Southeast Center for Photography, Columbia, South Carolina, in 2017; “Bridges: Sharing our Past to Enrich the Future,” Hildegard Center for the Arts, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2017; “Collective Experiences,” Chiang Mai University Art Museum, Chiang Mail Thailand, 2017; “The Abandoned Landscape,” Southeast Center for Photography, Greenville, South Carolina., 2016; and “Looking Glass: Exploring Self Portraiture,” Lubeznik Center for the Arts, Michigan City, Indiana, 2015.

Presentations include but are not limited to: “Catherland Project 1,” Willa Cather Foundation, Red Cloud, Nebraska, 2016; Musikhjalpen Oskarshamn, “HIV,” Sweden, Oskarshamn Sweden, 2014 Society of Photographic Education South East, “Vulnerabilities Groom,” Society of Photographic Education, Greenville, North Carolina, 2014.

Some of the grants he received include the following: “Portraiture with 1867 Camera,” sponsored by Minden Opera House, 2108; “Shane Booth and the Personal Photography of a Life with HIV,” sponsored by Department of State, Federal, $7,000.00, 2018; “Artist in Residence,” sponsored by Willa Cather Foundation, 2016; and “Regional Artists Grant,” Sponsored by United Arts Council (North Carolina Arts Council), 2013.
There will be plenty of social distancing for visitors to “Where the Winds Never Stops: The Hildreth Project at Gallery 208 until August 2020. There will be an opening reception in August. Gallery 208 is located at 208 Rowan St. The gallery hours are 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday. For information call 910- 484-6200.

 

Charlie Soong’s daughters — no fairy tale

15 bookIs it really just a fairy tale?

That is what some reviewers of a new book are calling one of my favorite stories. That book is “Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China” by Jung Chang.

The book profiles and puts in historical context the lives of the three Soong sisters who played important but very different roles in the history of China during the republican revolution and overthrow of the Manchu rule and the later Communist takeover in 1949.

The “fairy tale” began in the 1880s when Charlie Soong, a Chinese teenager, made his way to Wilmington, where he was baptized. Sponsored by North Carolina Methodists, he went to Trinity College and Vanderbilt University to prepare to return to China as a missionary. Back in China, he went into business, became wealthy and fathered three daughters. How they came to be important figures in Chinese history is the subject of the new book.

Soong sent all three to study in the U.S., where they learned to speak and read English as well as or better than Chinese.

The Big Sister of the book’s title is Soong’s oldest daughter, Ei-ling, who married a successful businessman and became wealthy. Red Sister is his middle daughter, Ching-ling, who married Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Chinese republic.

Little Sister is his youngest daughter, May-ling, who married Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China’s Nationalist government.

I have always been entranced by the North Carolina origins of this amazing and important family. But now, thanks to the new book, I have had to adjust my story.

First, I learned that the key to the Soong family’s success might have been more due to Charlie’s wife, Ni Kwei-tseng, than to Charlie. Ni came from an important and long-standing Chinese Christian clan and Ni was very devout. May-ling remembered, “I knew my mother lived very close to God ... asking God was not a matter of spending five minutes to ask Him to bless her child. …It meant waiting upon God until she felt his leading.”

Thus the Soong family’s solid Christian identity came not so much from Charlie’s North Carolina Methodist training as from Ni’s family background and her longstanding
commitment.

Secondly, I learned that Sun Yat-sen was not the hero I had always believed him to be. In the view of author Jung Chang, Sun was overrated, worked for his own aggrandizement rather than the good of the Chinese people and did not deserve credit for China’s revolution that overthrew the Manchu dynasty that had ruled China for centuries. Although he plotted for the rest of his life to become president of the new Chinese Republic, he served only a few weeks as interim president and spent most of his remaining life opposing those in power and inciting armed rebellion and civil war.

Sun had a mesmerizing power. His sister-in-law, May-ling, explained, “I have noticed that most successful men are usually not the ones with great power as geniuses but the ones who had such ultimate faith in their own selves that invariably they hypnotize others to that belief as well as themselves.”

She was describing Sun’s powers and, those of similar self-focused political leaders. Sun’s wife, Ching-ling, once deeply in love with him, became disenchanted with his self-focus. When Sun sought support from the Soviet Union to fund his efforts to take control of all of China, Ching-ling came in contact with Russians and the Communist ideology. After Sun’s death in 1925, she exploited her connection to Sun and styled herself Madam Sun Yat-sen. She used that connection to support the revolutionary efforts of the Mao-led Communists against the forces of May-ling’s husband, Chiang Kai-shek.

There is no fairy tale ending. Madam Sun Yat-sen and Madam Chiang Kai-shek never reconciled.

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